In 2005, my husband and I spent a winter in Maine. More than 100 inches of snow fell during the three months we were there. Snow was waist- or thigh-high many times throughout our brief stay there, and icicles would sometimes reach all the way to the ground. I didn’t see the earth — the dirt below the snow — for three months. Only whiteness and the black ribbons of rivers and roads. My husband and a friend of ours walked across the street to the beach, through chest-high snow drifts and wind they had to lean into, at midnight to listen to ocean waves slush onto the shore under a blanket of ice during a blizzard. It was a wild winter, especially for someone who grew up among live oaks and palm trees in the warmth of coastal Georgia.
Another year, we camped in Maine’s Acadia National Park during a summer when we lived in Maryland. We drove up and down the Maine coast visiting lighthouses and eating lobster rolls. We drove to quaint New England towns, walked barefoot on the warm cobbles of Maine beaches, watched fog roll in, and smelled the Christmas scent of firs on every hike.
I miss Maine, and was very excited to arrive there in my reading journey. I read multiple books set there, just because. As I read through the states, I’m finding that some of the books with the best sense of place are mysteries. The stories aren’t always new, but the settings are usually exactly what I’m looking for. Maine was no exception. I’m including only one mystery in my write-up, but check the list at the bottom of the post for another series.
Novel: Olive Kitteridge
Author: Elizabeth Strout, born Portland, Maine
Setting: early 2000s Crosby, Maine
Category: Contemporary fiction, Literary fiction, Pulitzer winner
Told through a series of short stories set in Crosby, Maine, in some of which Olive is a central character and in most of which she is peripheral, Olive Kitteridge is a novel of aging, of compassion, of cantankerousness, and of regret. Strout’s use of different points of view is genius in that she not only exhibits the town’s perception of Olive — her sharpness, crochetyness, sternness, and her formidableness as a teacher — but it also shows how her actions, how her bluntness cuts through the haze of depression, desperation, and loneliness of people with whom nobody else will be real. Olive inadvertently rescues multiple people in the book, and despite her impatience for morons, she takes care of people easily and without resentment.
The characters in her town hold up mirrors to Olive: reflections of youth, hunger, child-rearing, or unhappiness. Her grown son’s marriage to a “know-it-all,” his move to the opposite coast, his divorce, his second marriage, and ultimately his therapy, hold the most revealing mirror of all, perhaps the only mirror that Olive, and not just the reader, looks into at all. All the other stories reveal Olive to the reader, but her son’s story reveals Olive to herself.
The first time I read Olive Kitteridge I did not appreciate it, but this time it wowed me. It is a story about growing old, about going through life trying to tackle hard things, and only near the end figuring any of it out. It is about not throwing love away. It is about life being hard, but taking care to not let that make you cranky and turn you into a monster. I could understand where the bitter women in this book were coming from, but that crankiness, no matter how justified, will only isolate a person, will only ruin her own life. Will only make her miserable.
Novel: Rigged for Murder
Author: Jenifer LeClair, sails frequently in Gulf of Maine
Setting: Gulf of Maine, and fictitious Granite Island
Category: Murder Mystery
My husband and I started sailing this summer, and while I don’t want to be caught in a storm off Maine’s rocky coast, I’ll always be keen to read about one. Rigged for Murder is a fast-paced thriller where all the suspects are trapped on a wooden schooner in exactly the setting I wanted: stormy, salty, wild, and cold.
His eyes stung from the horizontal rain and the salt spray blown off the tops of the waves. The liquid air had worked its way under his hood and ran cold down the back of his neck. He’d sailed in lots of foul weather, but this was a bad sea.
LeClair is an experienced sailor and peppers the dialogue with sailing and lobstering language that deepens the sense of place, and along with the stormy seas of the Gulf of Maine, she delivers an isolated island with rocky cliffs and coves, lobster boats and fir trees, and even a bed and breakfast with warm showers and a trail through the Christmas-tree scented forest.
The setting was everything I craved, not just with the land of Maine, but with the roiling sea and the maritime history of it, too. I’m glad there are more in the series for when I’m landlocked and want the adventure of being on sailboat.
Author: Alexander Chee, grew up partially in Maine
Setting: contemporary Maine
Category: Asian American fiction, LGBT fiction
Almost all of these boys are blond. Which is to say, I am the one who isn’t.
This book begins with Fee, a Korean-American pre-teen in a New England choir, and introduces us to the innocence of young boys with voices like angels, and the molestation they suffer at their choir master’s summer camps in the woods of Maine. As innocents they are naturally confused, and know it is wrong. To compound his confusion, as Fee is victim and watches his closes friends also be victimized, Fee grows up knowing he is gay, and mixes this up with the obviously wrong thing the choir master does. Fee’s sexuality is impossibly intertwined with this monster in his life, and as if being gay weren’t difficult and scorned enough, he can’t separate his homosexuality from the wrongs his choir director did.
The book follows Fee into adulthood, incorporating Korean myth and beautiful, poetic language with grace and elegance. It is a book filled with beauty, sadness, and wisdom.
Love ruins monsters.
There were times I was so invested in the characters and the story I would forget the book is set in Maine. Then Chee would drop a passage like this:
The next morning the trees split from the cold. The water freezing inside the trees tears the fibers of the wood, and the wind pulls them apart.
The water, even in summer, is the temperature of an ice cube melting in your shirt. The stones of the beach warm us as we walk up and lie down on them to dry off.
And then I would remember Maine. Chee’s writing is beautiful, as is this novel.
For Further Reading in Maine
Books I’ve read and recommend:
– Carrie, by Stephen King
– Clammed Up (Maine Clambake Series #1), Barbara Ross
– The Cider House Rules, by John Irving
– The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey
– Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert
I am reading America: 3 books from each state in the US with the following authorships represented – women, men, and non-Caucasian writers. Follow along on Goodreads and here at andreareadsamerica.com.